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Rolando Terrell (Photo: Courtesy of the New Jersey Department of Corrections)

A 19-year-old woman awoke one morning in her bedroom to the sound of a man’s voice barking demands. The voice in another room of the house was anxious, and it sounded “stopped up, like he had a cold.” The man argued with her mother, and it escalated to a rage-filled dispute. Terrified, she ducked inside her closet, shut the door behind her and called 911. Then four shots rang out, separated by silence. The front door closed. The smoke alarms went off, and plumes from a fire began to fill the Irvington apartment. She grabbed her 16-month-old nephew from nearby and fled the burning residence.

When Anijah McLean was interviewed by police shortly afterward, she told detectives that man’s voice had been familiar—but she couldn’t immediately place it. Two days later, she could tell them with “100-percent certainty”: it was the man she called “Unc,” she said —a local Bloods gang leader named Rolando Terrell.

Terrell was ultimately convicted at a second trial in 2012, based partly on the woman’s identification of his voice. He is now serving a 300-year stint in New Jersey State Prison, but has continually attempted appeals.

Now the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld the “earwitness testimony” from that survivor in the horrific 2008 quadruple murder and arson in Irvington.

The state’s highest court upheld last year’s appellate rejection of Terrell’s arguments that the voice recognition was an inexact identification, and a handful of other issues including trace chemical identification.

Terrell, known locally as “Ratman,” was a known member of the Double ii Bloods set in the greater Newark area, according to court testimony. When the bodies of four females were discovered in the burning house the morning of Sept. 8, 2008, he quickly became a suspect when a co-conspirator came forward to link him to the scene. The co-conspirator said he had been picked up by Terrell and had even carried a beer bottle full of the accelerant used to burn the crime scene (although the witness said he left the house before the shots were fired and the fire was set).

Terrell turned himself in about five days after the slayings of Candes McLean, 40, and three members of her family: her 18-year-old daughter Talia Mclean; her 18-year-old niece Zakiyyah Jones; and her boyfriend’s daughter, 13-year-old Latrisha Carruthers-Fields.

Terrell’s defense attorney had hired Steven Penrod, an eyewitness expert from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The criminologist contended that “earwitness” testimony was inexact.

But much of Penrod's testimony was struck by the trial judge, since the court became concerned the findings did not pertain specifically to the case at hand. The appellate and Supreme Court agreed.

“Throughout his testimony Dr. Penrod conflated eyewitness identification with voice recognition, often making no differentiation between the two,” the appellate court wrote. “While the evidence perhaps supported a theory that many identifications were mistaken, it did not clearly explain what analysis a juror should undergo to assess the State’s voice identification evidence.”

The New Jersey courts further found the lone survivor of the house massacre was particularly credible, considering neighbors’ corroborating eyewitness testimony and also her familiarity with Terrell (since her mother’s boyfriend was in the same gang).

“The survivor was familiar with defendant and had spent 10 minutes talking with him in the Jeep two weeks earlier,” they ruled. “Nor was the survivor’s recollection prompted by police interrogation. In fact, the day following the murders, as the survivor recounted the events to her boyfriend, unprompted, she realized the man in her home was defendant.”

Terrell also argued against other forensic evidence used in his convictions.

Traces of the chemicals toluene and decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (D5) were found together on clothes worn by the victim, in the getaway vehicle, and also on the clothing of the co-conspirator—all backing the latter’s story, the courts ruled.

Testimony from a gang expert for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office was also ruled proper, and the dismissal of a juror based on emotional distress was also the correct action at trial, according to the appeals decisions.

The quadruple homicide of the four females in the Irvington house is often overshadowed by another multiple homicide committed about two miles away just the year before: the 2007 Newark “Schoolyard Murders” by gang members of three college students at Mount Vernon School.

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